Handling dental patient cancellations and no-shows

There are ways to discourage dental patients from cancelling and becoming no-shows, and ways to handle those who repeatedly do not make their dental appointments.

Content Dam Diq Online Articles 2018 05 Dental Front Office On Phone 1
Dental Front Office On Phone

This article originally appeared in Dental Office Manager Digest e-newsletter. Subscribe to this informative monthly ENL designed specifically for the dental office manager here.

As dental office managers, it’s our responsibility to implement scheduling protocols that are healthy for the practice as a business. This includes how we manage patients who don’t show up for appointments or who are known to cancel at a moment’s notice.
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Have patients confirm appointments

With technology, it’s harder than ever for patients to forget their appointments. Personal reminders can be sent to just about any electronic device. Nearly all patients own cell phones and communicate via texting. These days, most practice management or appointment systems allow dental offices to share alerts directly that send (1) reminders at the time of scheduling (save-the-date texts), (2) confirmation on the day before the appointment, and (3) texts one hour prior to the appointment as a last-minute reminder.

If your office has not invested in an SMS/text system, it’s a smart thing to do. It saves hours of manpower by preventing staff from having to physically call each patient to confirm appointments. Patients can confirm their visits via text outside of business hours, and they can even be prompted to cancel with 24-hour notice if necessary.

Train patients not to cancel

For appointments made in person or over the phone, it’s vital to explain to patients that they need to let you know at least 24 hours in advance if they must cancel or reschedule their appointments. Depending on your practice, you may even want to state that a fee will be incurred for last-minute cancellations.

For example, Mrs. Smith has an appointment for a filling next week. You could say, “Mrs. Smith, if for any reason something comes up and you’re not able to make it to this appointment, please let us know at least 24 hours in advance. Otherwise, a $50 charge will be applied to your account. This policy helps us keep our operating costs as low as possible for all of our patients.”

Very rarely will you have to actually charge a patient for a missed appointment. But this added financial incentive acts as another layer of encouragement for your patients to make their scheduled visits.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice …

It’s impossible to know who’s going to be a chronic no-show until it’s too late. If a patient has two recent no-shows on his or her file, do not reschedule the person again. These patients need to be placed on a short-notice list for openings that pop up due to last-minute cancellations or for times that are challenging to fill. Do not allow them to schedule during prime time-slots such as at the end of the day or during extended office hours. Reserve these times for reliable patients of record.

Be sympathetic

There will always be situations such as illness, emergencies, and accidents that require even the most reliable and trustworthy patients to cancel appointments. These people demand our respect and concern.

If the last-minute cancellation is due to an illness, it’s essential to remember that we are health-care providers first and foremost. It’s important that actively infectious people do not come in for dental care as this could cause illness or infection to spread among other people in the office. If the dentist or hygienist is not comfortable seeing a patient with an active cold sore, they should not be encouraging someone with the flu or a cold to come in either. Schedule the patients for one to two weeks out.

Fortunately, most of our reliable patients will have been “trained” to call in and let us know they’re not able to come in. Emergency cancellations are typically less frequent. With short notice, we should have adequate time to call from the “first available” list to see patients who are in need of urgent care or tend to be chronic no-shows.

Talk them out of canceling

Sometimes people cancel due to fear or financial restraints rather than the reason they’re providing over the phone. They may be less than forthcoming due to embarrassment. When a patient calls to cancel and seems uncertain, it’s best to encourage the person to keep the appointment, especially if you don’t have an opening for quite some time afterward.

A conversation could go like this. “Mr. Jones, we don’t have an opening for a crown appointment for another two weeks. I would hate for your tooth to break and for you to need both a root canal and crown all at once. Unfortunately, that’s quite common if a crown treatment is put off too long. We do offer several financing options if that would make it more convenient for us to see you today.”

Set the tone for the entire office, and the rest of the team will follow suit.


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Heather ColicchioHeather Colicchio is the founder and president of the American Association of Dental Office Management, the nation’s largest professional organization for dental office managers and practice administrators. AADOM teaches business management skills for dental practices. Colicchio promotes small business and entrepreneurship, and is excited about seeing ideas come to life, especially when those ideas empower others. One of Colicchio’s unique strengths is connecting people to achieve their goals. She appreciates collaboration and thrives working with talented teams of professionals in the dental industry. Learn more about AADOM and Heather’s advocacy for dental management professionals at dentalmanagers.com.

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